True and False Autonomy

April 19, 2012 By: Michael Nagel Category: Living with Intention, Mind Body Spirit

A saner man would have found himself, often enough “in formal opposition” to what are deemed “the most sacred laws of society,” through obedience to yet more sacred laws, and so have tested his resolution without going out of his way. It is not for a man to put himself in such an attitude to society, but to maintain himself in whatever attitude he find himself through obedience to the laws of his being, which will never be one of opposition to a just government, if he should chance to meet with such.

~ Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862),
American Transcendentalist, author and naturalist, in Walden

As a brief prelude to this post, I recall that while sharing coffee with a 20-something-year-old a couple of years ago, I mentioned Thoreau.
“Who?”, he replied.
“Who’s he?”
For those of us whom the American educational system has misguided, Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” inspired Mahatma Ghandi who liberated India from British colonial rule. Thoreau also inspired Martin Luther King Jr. who helped liberate fellow citizens from social injustice. Thoreau’s “Walden” is one of the great works of American literature, and it is a foundation stone of American Transcendentalism.

Autonomy is one of the themes of Thoreau’s writing (which may be why today he no longer is taught). His life is an example of personal authenticity. Now, about authenticity…


Living things have innate intelligence. From amoeba to human, each is capable of directing its own activities in a way that seeks to optimize its existence. Science describes this trait as self-organizing. In psychology, we speak of an innate drive to self-actualize.

Personal autonomy is an attribute of the self-actualizing person. defines autonomy as “the quality or state of being independent, free, and self-directing.” In our striving to be autonomous, we need to distinguish between false and true autonomy.

We act with false autonomy when our seemingly self-directed action is a reaction to something else. However subtle our reaction may be, we are ensnared by that to which we react. Our action is not independent, but rather it depends upon that to which we react.

Our reactivity could be as subtle as associational thinking (see the “Life as an Automaton” post). For example, in going to feed the cat, I remember that the litter box needs cleaning. I then go to clean the litter box, and note the cleaned laundry needs to be put in the dryer. This is reactivity, not autonomy.

Our reactivity could be an emotional reaction to someone or something else which we like or dislike. Someone cuts me off in traffic, and I become angry, speed up, and tailgate. This too is reactivity, not autonomy.

We might react to a societal condition or governmental policy. For example, the government decides to convert all pension plans and 401k stock holdings to treasury bills, in order to cover the federal debt, and in opposition I protest on the streets. This too isn’t autonomy, for my action depends upon the action of another.

What distinguishes false from true autonomy is not the nature of the action, but rather the source of the action. Am I acting in response to another, or in response to listening to my inner Self, its guidance and direction. Yes, I could protest on the streets, but only if that was the inclination of the Self, or as Thoreau said, the laws of my Being.

True autonomy is an attribute of Being. Its actions are Self-sourced, nonreactive, spontaneously arising from presence according to the needs of the moment. Such actions of course will reflect the society’s “sacred laws” – but only if that society is just, for Being itself is sacred. The less reactive we are, the more stabilized in presence we are, and the more autonomous we are.

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